As a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it might sound odd to type this, but you've gotta love the Tampa Bay Rays. All of fantasy baseball should. Thanks to the B.J. Upton home run Sunday, the team set a big league record in reaching 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases the fastest. This little statistical tidbit might seem irrelevant, but that kind of bountiful diversity only reinforces the Rays getting my vote for the best real-life fantasy offense so far.
Carl Crawford ranks second on the ESPN Player Rater (some guy in St. Louis is the top guy), as he makes a run at 80 stolen bases and hits well over .300. Jason Bartlett was the top shortstop in fantasy until a recent DL stint, but he looks fine now. Corner infielders Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria might each swat 40 home runs. Upton has finally started adding power to the speed. And Ben Zobrist is probably the biggest surprise in fantasy so far. What's not to like here?
You might not have noticed, but the Rays are firmly back in the AL East race, and while their pitching might have stabilized -- we're all watching Scott Kazmir, David Price and closer J.P. Howell -- it's been mostly about the offense. The defending AL champs lead the majors in runs scored, are top five in home runs and lead the second-place Angels by 41 stolen bases. Consider that 10 major league teams haven't stolen 41 bases all year and the difference between first and second is more telling. Owning Rays is like drafting potential 30/30 types in fantasy, and we all know how tough it is to procure stolen bases.
The Rays may become the fifth team ever to make it to 100/100 before the All-Star break, but only one of those other teams had an offense built quite like this and sustained its production. I think these Rays can! The 2003 Florida Marlins had both 106 homers and steals by the break, but didn't break 160 in either stat for the season. Mike Lowell's 32 home runs ended up leading the squad, and Juan Pierre was the only guy to swipe more than 22 bases. These Rays have three players who should hit more than 32 homers -- yes, Zobrist is for real -- and three others who could get to 40 steals. Even Zobrist is helping out by running, and could steal 20 bases. The 1994 Cleveland Indians could not sustain their 100/100 start. The Indians had Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton, but nobody else topped 20 home runs or 13 steals. The 1977 Cincinnati Reds featured the signature George Foster MVP season, with 52 home runs, and everyone in the infield ran (Joe Morgan stole 49 bases). That was just an awesome team overall.
Then there are those 1998 Toronto Blue Jays. I can't find any team -- whether it reached 100/100 or not by the All-Star break -- with this kind of power/speed offense for an entire season. Those Jays finished in third place in the AL East, but the offense was terrific, finishing with 221 home runs and 184 steals. I should point out that neither home run totals nor stolen bases are critical to real-life victories, but in our game, they sure are. For those Jays, Jose Canseco's lone season above the border was a huge success, with 46 homers and 29 steals. Shawn Green had a 35/35 season. Carlos Delgado hit 38 home runs and Shannon Stewart stole 51 bases. If Upton really makes a run at 30/30, then these current Rays can surpass what Toronto achieved for fantasy goodness. I'd take 15 home runs from Upton at this point but still, he has that kind of talent. And the Rays have others just as good in fantasy! By the way, but wow, people forget how good Green was in his prime.
Before the season I predicted the Rays would defend their AL East title, which of course was pretty much scoffed at. It doesn't look so silly anymore, does it? There's no reason why Pena, Longoria, Crawford and Upton can't continue to pile on their numbers, and I think Zobrist's power and Bartlett's speed are both legit. The Rays probably won't challenge some of the teams we've seen in the past two decades for power prowess, or those Vince Coleman Cardinals teams for stolen base totals, but their combination of power and speed is electric. Keep an eye on these Rays; it might be the top fantasy offense we've ever seen.
And now, on to the normal stuff from Leading Off.
Quote of the week
"That's tough. He's the best third baseman in the league. That guy plays hurt, but he needs surgery."
So says Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez. First of all, Adrian Beltre is not the best third baseman in the league. The way he was playing, I'd argue there's a better one in his own division (Michael Young), and what about these A-Rod and Longoria fellows? Anyway, Beltre is opting to not play hurt this week. Is anyone else a bit bothered by him shutting his season down for possibly two months with a planned shoulder surgery? He played all weekend, delivering his final RBI on Sunday, but had announced days earlier the surgery was pending. Beltre was drafted as the No. 9 third baseman in ESPN leagues, and just outside the top 100, so he was plenty relevant. He's still owned in more than 81 percent of leagues, on pace for a disappointing 11 homers and 68 RBIs, but a nice 20 steals.
He shouldn't be too difficult to replace in standard leagues, but that's not the point. I don't know if Beltre could have played all season through the shoulder pain, but who makes an announcement like this and plays a few more games, especially with his team a mere three games out of first place? Sure, maybe the Mariners couldn't stick around in the AL West race anyway, and it will be nice when Beltre is healthy and back on the field, but might the Mariners be done by then? Will Erik Bedard and others be on other teams? Beltre himself is now untradeable before the July 31 deadline. Hmm, this surgery wouldn't have anything to do with this being a contract season, would it?
By the way, I doubt the Mariners do this, but I'd move Russell Branyan and his .300 batting average (maybe the most amazing stat of the season) to third base and see if Jeff Clement can handle first base. But it's not gonna happen. Things aren't all lost in Seattle, though: The Mariners acquired Ryan Langerhans over the weekend!
Whatever happened to ... that David Ortiz slump?
The Red Sox first baseman looks like a different player this month, with seven home runs and a .313 batting average. He's back up to 93 percent owned in ESPN leagues, and while I wouldn't expect he hits like this consistently the rest of the season (any injury tweak could halt the fun quickly), I could see five homers per month, maybe a .275 batting average. You'd take that, right?
My real point here is I want to say thank you to Mike Lowell.
Continued hip problems by the Boston third baseman opened the door for Ortiz to play first base over the past week. Ortiz now is qualified to do something other than clog up the utility spot in many fantasy leagues. For this we thank Lowell, who is actually having a pretty nice season but hopefully will play this week. With Lowell out, Kevin Youkilis moved to third base, where he has played 11 games, triggering his eligibility in leagues as well. Nine more and he'll be a third baseman in 2010! I love eligibility.
According to ESPN's stats, there are only eight hitters who have so many at-bats at designated hitter that they'd qualify for the batting title at that spot. Now that Ortiz can play first base, it leaves Jim Thome as the only one who is DH-only. I could really use a few outfield games for the Yankees' Hideki Matsui in one of my very deep keeper teams, but I'll live either way.
It sure would be nice if ... rest was what Jimmy Rollins needed
I admit I am skeptical here. I love the Phillies and I believe they can win the NL East with 85 wins due to the competition around them, but why should we believe Rollins is all of a sudden about to turn his season around for fantasy purposes? Manager Charlie Manuel sat him all weekend, and didn't let him pinch run or play the field at all, trying to clear his head. It's a bold move, really. When we do this in fantasy, randomly sitting players, nothing happens! I can't guess as to the Rollins psyche right now.
I never thought we'd see a 30-homer season from him again anyway, but I did think 15 homers and 40 steals wasn't too much to ask for. A month ago I labeled him a buy-low option. Now? I don't know. It depends on what you need to pay to get him, but other than an unlucky batting average on balls in play I don't see much statistical reason to think Rollins will hit .300 the rest of the way, or contribute power. His wheels might be in some question as well, as he's been caught stealing on a third of his attempts. In the past two seasons, Rollins stole 88 bases and was caught nine times. So, what's the deal? Has his bat slowed? His legs? Has he hit a wall at 30?
Rollins should play this week, and I think he'll start raising that .211 batting average. Maybe he still gets to 15 and 40; he is on pace for 14 and 23, after all, and he can change the stolen-base pace easily. I just don't assume he's a top-25 player the rest of the way, or even top-50, so if he plays well Tuesday, I might try to move him. Of course, there's not a chance anyone in one of my leagues would take Rollins from me at this point, but I'll try. Not all veteran players having poor seasons like Rollins and Magglio Ordonez will turn things around, so be careful how you buy low.
Stat of the week: 3-0, 2.19
Congrats to John Lannan for becoming the first member of the Nationals/Expos franchise to go 3-0 or better with a sub-2.50 ERA in a calendar month since Tomo Ohka did this in May 2004. The problem is Ohka didn't win any other games that entire season! Lannan is a much better bargain. He's owned in a mere 3.2 percent of ESPN leagues, and if you think he doesn't win enough, note that he's 29th in the majors in ERA and has as many wins as Javier Vazquez, Aaron Harang, Scott Baker, Matt Garza, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Cliff Lee, Rich Harden, Cole Hamels and Francisco Liriano, among others. Lannan went 3-0 with a 2.19 ERA in June, and his WHIP was barely 1. Sure, he doesn't strike hitters out, but he's worth owning. Maybe he's the next Jamie Moyer. I'm also betting the current Moyer has a month like that starting very soon.
The final word
This is a big week in fantasy, as Manny Ramirez and Raul Ibanez are scheduled to return to lineups, Roy Halladay should make two starts, and July begins. You'll hear a lot about potential real-life trades for the next month, and as I noted in my last column, fantasy owners should not overreact with odd decision-making.
Personally, I don't think Matt Holliday gets moved, as the Athletics could opt to keep him around and enjoy the draft pick compensation. Sure, it stinks owning Mark DeRosa in an AL-only league today, but that's life. Those in NL-only leagues should pounce on DeRosa because he might be the best Albert Pujols protection for Tony LaRussa's club. Could we see DeRosa, on pace for 28 homers and 109 RBIs, actually exceed those stats? I think so. By the way, does anyone else remember when he was merely the Braves' utility infielder? Try to think of Omar Infante or Martin Prado hitting 30 homers in a few seasons. I can't do it, either.
While I'm at it, try to think of any current Braves infielder reaching 30 home runs. Chipper Jones might be the anti-Beltre, playing through injuries we don't know about, but he's batting .247 this month and is hitting .167 over his past 16 games. I fear a DL stint to give him a rest is nearing. Yunel Escobar isn't making friends with his team, getting benched recently for an outburst at an official scorer who gave him an error. Kelly Johnson and Casey Kotchman are unownable. The Braves scored three runs this weekend. Tommy Hanson is headed for the NL Rookie of the Year award, but he's going to have to be perfect if he wants to keep winning.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.